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After more than 30 years with The Sydney Morning Herald and Fairfax Media in Australia, Greg Growden now writes exclusively online for ESPNscrum. Never afraid to step on toes, you can expect plenty of compelling insight from one of Australia's most renowned rugby writers.

Super Rugby Preview
Cheetahs won't ambush respectful rivals - Growden
Greg Growden and Andy Withers
February 10, 2014
Can the Cheetahs progress again after the maiden finals appearance in 2013? © Scrum.com
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Cheetahs' Super Rugby 2014 Squad

  • Ryno Barnes, Ryno Benjamin, Francois Brummer, Heinrich Brüssow, Jean Cook, Hennie Daniller, Lodewyk de Jager, Rossow de Klerk, Joubert Engelbrecht, Andries Ferreira, Johan Goosen, Carel Greeff, Cornal Hendricks, Inus Kritzinger, Lappies Labuschagne, Ligtoring Landman, AJ le Roux, Willie le Roux, Hercu Liebenberg, Piet Lindeque, Hilton Lobberts, Kevin Luiters, Howard Mnisi, Teboho Mohoje, Jaco Nepgen, Trevor Nyakane, Caylib Oosthuizen, Coenie Oosthuizen, Sarel Pretorius, Boom Prinsloo, Raymond Rhule, Johann Sadie, Nick Schonert, Adriaan Strauss, Riaan Smit, Francois Uys, Schalk van der Merwe, Philip van der Walt, Max van Dyk, Torsten van Jaarsveld, Francois Venter, Shaun Venter, PJ Vermeulen, Waltie Vermeulen, Elgar Watts, Martin Bezuidenhout, Tian Meyer.
  • Cheetahs' Super Rugby 2014 fixtures

The Cheetahs seemingly are every fan's second team, perhaps because they are perennial underdogs who punch above their weight - or perhaps because they try under Naka Drotske to play an entertaining brand of rugby; certainly they offer more reason than most South African teams to watch the end of a Super Rugby round even if you (but not Jake White) will be surprised to learn they scored only 38 tries in the home-and-away last season. Greg Growden says opponents will not be so complacent when confronting them this year, and lack of outright class should see them fall short even if they have the potential to make the cut-off again.

Last Season: elimination finals, second in South African Conference; the Cheetahs made their maiden finals appearance, and only they can say truly if they bombed a golden opportunity to go at least one match further than the knockout fixture on bitter-cold day in Canberra. Remember they scored two tries while denying the Brumbies, and Riaan Smit hit a post with a sideline conversion after the siren that would have forced extra-time. They were much more solid in their defensive structure than in previous years, in particular when scrambling, turning around their campaign with a five-match tear (three away wins in New Zealand and Australia) after being humbled by the Chiefs in Waikato. They now have a higher benchmark against which to judge themselves, and the likes of Hennie Daniller, Willie "Spiders" le Roux, Raymond Rhule and their impressive front- and back-rows will look to prove themselves even more damaging.

Greg Growden and Russell Barwick examine the Super Rugby challenge from South Africa's five franchises

Key man: Pieter Labuschagne developed into one of the best flankers in the competition last season, fully deserving selection in our Team of the Season after performing week in, week out. He finished the season as the top tackler in the competition, and featured among the leading pilferers and lineout winners. Strong at the breakdown and charging with ball in hand, the Cheetahs will not go close to replicating their 2013 form without another strong season from "Lappies"; we will not be surprised to see him make his Springboks debut this year after being called into the squad last season.

Key Stat: The Cheetahs had tremendous fortune with injuries last season, when 10 players featured in all 17 of their matches; they'll need similar fortune to compete this season as their squad still lacks the absolute depth of their rivals'.

Rising star: Cornall Hendricks finally wears the Cheetahs jersey, having missed 2013 due to a dispute with the South African Rugby Union after Sevens coach Paul Treu wanted him for the Blitzbokke. He provides genuine gas in the backline, befitting a man who has scored 19 tries for Boland Cavaliers in Currie Cup and 58 in two seasons for South Africa on the IRB World Sevens circuit. He is known as a strong runner and an aggressive defender, and we think he can enjoy a strong debut campaign. He plays predominantly on the wing, but also at outside centre, and Drotske should easily find space for him alongside Daniller, le Roux and Rhule.

Super Rugby 2014: Team-by-team

© SANZAR (Image Supplied)

Season Preview: The Cheetahs have maintained their squad, having lost just Lourens Adriaanse (Sharks), Piet van Zyl (Bulls) and Robert Ebersohn (Montpellier, France) of their established names; good news is the retention of their hardworking back-rowers, while Shaun Venter did enough with Southern Kings to suggest he's a good replacement for van Zyl, and Francois Venter is a good midfield pick-up from the Bulls. But key to the Cheetahs' hopes this year is their form in Bloemfontein (they dropped three of eight matches at home in 2013) and on tour (they have a poor history on the road but won three in Australia and New Zealand last year): matches at home to the Lions (round one) and the Bulls (round two) before four weeks across the Indian Ocean mean we'll have a guide on their campaign inside six weeks.

Greg Growden's verdict: The Cheetahs are the masters of ambushing opponents. Maybe it has something to do with Bloemfontein, and the way it can disorientate visitors. Las Vegas it ain't. Considering they lack the names of the other South African provinces, their effort in making the finals last season was exceptional. It showed yet again what can be achieved from a bunch of scrappers who are determined to play for each other. Nothing much will change this season, with them relying yet again on Adriaan Strauss and Willie le Roux to provide them with direction. The problem with the Cheetahs this year is the fact that opponents will not be so complacent when confronting them, especially on tour; remember last year they won three of their matches on the road (against the Highlanders, New South Wales Waratahs and Western Force). The Cheetahs have the potential to again make the cut-off, but lack of outright class should see them fall short.

Tip: Third in South Africa Conference. Finish: Tenth.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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